When Buckyballs, a set of rare-earth magnet toys meant for desktop amusement use, went on sale in 2009, the product packaging cautioned that the magnets were intended for children ages 13 years and up. Over the next three years, the company was plagued by a series of incidents involving children swallowing the magnets, a potentially serious misuse of the toy considering that two ingested magnets could be attracted to one another and cause bowel perforation, among other unpleasantness.
It wasn’t necessarily curiosity that caused issues. One 12-year-old girl who wanted to pretend she had a tongue piercing put the magnets on either side of her tongue, swallowed them, and required two operations and a month’s absence from school.
Buckyballs voluntarily recalled 175,000 of the sets in 2010 to alter the age suggestion from 13 and up to caution that the set wasn’t suitable for children of any age. It wasn’t enough. In 2012, the company behind Buckyballs as well as those behind other, similar toys were forced to recall products at the behest of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
For decades, toy companies have been offering recommended age ranges on product packaging. While it may seem like a regimented approach is taken and government standards apply, that’s not necessarily the case. While the CPSC has the authority to recall toys and products that are demonstrably unsafe, it’s up to toy companies to evaluate their goods and decide which toys are appropriate for different age groups. Beyond safety, issues of motor skills and child development are in play. So are marketing needs. In other words, when it comes to toys and recommended ages, the pieces don’t always fit.
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Prior to the formation of the CPSC in 1972, which was charged with protecting consumers from an “unreasonable” risk of injury, it was usually up to parents to determine whether a toy — typically defined as a product meant for kids under 14 — would be fun and age-appropriate for their child. There were certainly ones to be concerned about. The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, for instance, contained actual uranium ore. Wham-O’s Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, which let kids blow bubbles, also permitted them to inhale toxic fumes.
These were toys that harbored danger. Dozens more were bought on a whim, with parents having to guess whether kids possessed the dexterity or patience to use them. It wasn’t until 1985 that the CPSC instituted age recommendation guidelines for toy manufacturers, which took into account a child’s tolerance for a given product category. A LEGO playset, for example, requires motor function in both hands. A Speak and Spell? Only the pulling of a string.
The age recommendations, which were updated in 2002 and again in 2020, are voluntary and separate from safety labels, which are necessary to notify buyers of potential health or choking hazards. If any part of a toy can be removed using sufficient torque or force and then swallowed, it has to be smaller in diameter than a child’s windpipe. (The CPSC requires companies use a 1.25-inch diameter cylinder to make that determination. If the part doesn’t fit, meaning it could get lodged in the throat, it’s not permitted to be targeted to children under 3. A safety warning is required for kids aged 3 to 6.)
But safety hazards aside, how do toy companies determine the age range of a Barbie? Or a LEGO set?
“They have psychologists on staff who presumably know kids,” says Roberta Golinkoff, a child psychologist who holds the Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. “They usually bring kids in to see what toys they gravitate to as part of their research.”
Most if not all major toy companies — Hasbro, Mattel (which owns Fisher-Price), LEGO, and Playmobil — perform focus group testing to establish a child’s interest and capability with products. They also have the CPSC’s Age Determination Guidelines to refer to. The exhaustive 357-page document breaks down toys into subcategories like educational, toys with “smart” features, licensed themes like Sesame Street, and more. The CPSC then reviews a variety of age brackets to assess their typical suitability, looking at details like color, shape, the number of parts, and the level of realism. These features are assessed against a child’s creativity, language skills, verbal judgment, focus, and emotional awareness, among other traits.
Newborns prefer to look at human faces and and can’t grip very well. By seven months, they continue to use their sensitive lips and tongue to explore, meaning an appropriate plaything should be washable. At 12 to 18 months, many can pull to an upright position, some can walk, and others are able to push. At 19 to 23 months, they understand cause and effect. (Press the button, hear a noise.) At 2 years, they recognize television characters and have developed control over gross and fine motor skills. At 3 years and up, role-playing with dolls begins. At 6 through 8, they can use logic to solve problems. At ages 9 through 12, science products and complex activities can be introduced.
But these guidelines are just that: guidelines. While generally accurate, they rely on a toymaker’s discretion.
“When I see boxes with age ranges, I think in general they’re pretty good,” Golinkoff says. “They don’t want to have customers who are frustrated if a kid can’t do it.”
But, Golinkoff adds, “It’s in the interest of toy companies to widen age ranges.”
Why should a product be limited to ages 9 through 12 if it might appeal — with some compromise — to a child 6 through 8? Likewise, why determine a toy might skew too young when older kids might be perfectly happy with it? “It’s not a bad thing,” Golinkoff says. “Every kid is different.”
According to CPSC engineering psychologist Jonathan Midgett, offering firm mandates for different toy categories would be virtually impossible for the agency to implement or police. “They’re not regulations,” he says of the guidelines. “The guidelines are broader.”
Toy companies, Midgett says, might compress age ranges, broadening their potential market. “The onus is on the industry to determine the proper age range for a toy.”
Toys might be labeled for a given age range because they’re appropriate or because similar toys might have been labeled as such in the past. But it might also come from marketing departments who think a toy will sell best to a specific audience.
This system of checks and balances is bolstered by one thing the CPSC does insist on: mandatory third-party testing of toys. Companies like Bureau Veritas and Intertek perform quality control testing to recommend or affirm age ranges. While that’s intended to have some additional oversight, Midgett says some of the larger toy companies own their own labs, making the “third” in “third-party” something less than accurate.
Still, he says, product recommendations have gotten much more stringent over the past 10 or 12 years, since Congress enacted both the CPSC Safety Act and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008 to give the agency more authority to mandate and accredit third-party labs. Before, Midgett recalls seeing a push toy in a factory in China that should have been labeled for a 3-year-old or older. On the package was an 18-month-old playing with it, with labeling indicating it was suitable for 3 months and up.
“That happened a lot,” he says. With third-party testing, even if there’s a material connection with the toy company, labeling is generally more accurate, though a level of subjectivity is unavoidable.
“Remote-controlled toys are a good example,” Midgett says. “There are all kinds of remote control devices for toys. Some have one button to make it go forward and stop. A little kid can operate it. At the other end of the spectrum are controls for altitude, speed, and direction. Is that a 12-plus or 14-plus toy?”
According to Midgett, the larger problem than manufacturers stretching the limits of age ranges to maximize potential consumers is parents ignoring the labels.
“The temptation I see most often is for a parent to believe their child is precious,” he says. “They buy an 8-year-old a toy for a 6-year-old. Thinking ‘my kid can handle this’ is a universal trait of parents.”
Golinkoff recommends that parents take age guidelines at face value and understand that every kid is different. Someone might be capable of playing with a toy intended for an older child, while a child with developmental challenges might not it the conventional paradigm. A challenging toy might become a child’s favorite if they’re given a sufficient amount of instruction with it. Parents should also be aware of buying toys meant for older users when younger ones are in the house. Like the toy companies themselves, finding toys suitable for kids takes some trial and error.